There’s a moment midway through “Citizen Rose” that encapsulates what the documentary does well.
Rose McGowan is getting ready for Thanksgiving at a relative’s house where the dinner party will include many people she’s never met. As she looks in the mirror, she talks about the fact that everyone there will already know a lot about her. She’ll be meeting her brother’s girlfriend for the first time, and though that is exciting to her, she’s nervous too, given that, even at the best of times, Thanksgiving dinners can be fraught.
It’s nearly impossible to imagine being the person whom many families — not just your own — were discussing over the holidays. But the Great Reckoning that has begun to wash across the country has made McGowan much more famous than she was before. As this realization hits her — the certainty that everyone at the gathering will have made assumptions about her — McGowan closes her eyes and leans on the bathroom sink.
Is she attempting to comfort herself? Is she simply acknowledging the contradictory emotions of the moment? Maybe she’s fashioning some kind of emotional armor. It’s not clear, because the moment isn’t. There’s no precise label for what she’s going through.
At the dinner, McGowan seems to be in good spirits, but “Citizen Rose” scratches at the edges of that word: “seems.” What did it cost her to interact calmly with family members and strangers, or to give a speech in front of thousands of women, weeks after the identity of her alleged rapist was revealed? After years of private struggle and public dismissal, what was it like to finally watch the world confront the legacy of “the monster” whom she says assaulted her 20 years ago? What will the industry — and the world — do in response to not just her story, but the stories of other men and women who have been assaulted, abused and harassed?
There’s no easy answer to any of those questions, and being truthful about that is “Citizen Rose’s” primary accomplishment. The two-hour film depicts the kind of complicated messiness that accompanies any story of trauma. There is no ending to the process; the kind of tidy catharsis that Hollywood loves is missing.
In its first hour, “Citizen Rose” is especially jagged as it bounces around between McGowan’s past and present, but the rawness and even the occasional sense of chaos feels right for this story, which is far from over. McGowan herself is many people in the film: The truth-teller who talks to the camera while sitting fully clothed in her empty bathtub; the organizer who leads a retreat focused on the mission of her “Rose Army”; the friend who just wants her pal, Amber Tamblyn, to hang out with her a bit longer; the open, energetic woman who talks to a stranger in a Detroit parking lot about the profile of her published that day in the New York Times.
There are echoes of the “bad girl” image that Hollywood crafted for her many years ago; in the E! program, McGowan longs for “more middle fingers” to raise to those who would ignore her or shut her down. But McGowan, who is an executive producer of “Citizen Rose,” includes many revealing moments that even a reasonably good magazine profile would not be able to fully capture.
She talks to her mother about how difficult she was in the past, when she had psychologically shut down after her assault. For both women, the discussion is clearly painful — and unfinished. When she finds out that representatives for Harvey Weinstein — a man she does not name in the film — got a copy of her memoir in advance, she’s silent and pale. It’s another violation, another loss of control and autonomy to grapple with. Wearing a Taco Bell sweatshirt, scrunched up in a chair, she’s not just anxious: She looks tired. It never ends.
The debut of “Citizen Rose” is to be followed in the spring by four additional episodes, and the first installment does have some structure: It roughly follows the dislocating timeline of last fall’s revelations about Weinstein and many other high-profile men. On the day the first devastating report about Weinstein was published, McGowan is seen attending an anti-domestic violence rally and talking with survivors. As more bombshells drop, McGowan gives a speech to the Women’s Convention, talks with reporters and visits her father’s grave.
Several times, McGowan opens up about her difficult relationship with her late father, who dealt with bipolar disorder before he died. The fact that she grew up in a cult with a documented history of inappropriate conduct relating to children receives some attention. But “Citizen Rose” flits from subject to subject and event to event fairly quickly, and there are some topics that are interesting and knotty enough to merit further exploration.
Perhaps some subjects — notably how her parents ended up in the Children of God movement and McGowan’s own entry into what she calls the cult of Hollywood — will get more attention in upcoming episodes. But as it stands now, as jittery as it is, the initial episode will likely be fascinating and even moving to those who have been closely following the #MeToo movement.
It’s not slick; clips from a film McGowan directed are placed alongside cellphone videos of her being pulled over by a cop; there’s footage of her heading into a magistrate’s office in order to deal with an outstanding warrant; at one point, she walks along a city street, filming a nighttime snowfall with her phone. It’s a collage of angry moments, impressionistic images and inspirational ideas, and McGowan’s attempt to tell her past and present stories and express herself as an artist sometimes collide rather than commingle. But the sincerity that drives her campaign to make the world (and herself) “10% more awake” is readily apparent.
The touchstone of “Citizen Rose” is McGowan’s own prickly, vulnerable yet charismatic presence, and that is enough to unify it and transmit the message that all survivors are unique and do not experience trauma and recovery in the same ways. For many, the initial injury is the first in a string of wounds, and the effectiveness of different methods of healing can change from one moment to the next, and from one person to the next. Survival is a choppy, not-quite-linear experience, but so is confronting the costs of fame.
One can feel McGowan’s relief, and even glee, at finding yet another way to reclaim the narrative of her life. Having been seen through the lens of filmmakers, screenwriters, and reporters for so long, now she (and people working for her) wield the camera. She challenges and mocks her image as a “kook,” even as she effectively hypes her forthcoming book, “Brave.” She attacks the smooth branding of the Times Up movement even as she shares ambiguous feelings about how she’s expressed herself at certain moments. And it’s worth noting that “Citizen Rose” is, among other things, a canny piece of marketing. That’s not a criticism, by the way; if someone is going to tell McGowan’s story and leverage her fame in this surreal moment, it might as well be her.
All things considered, there’s a core of truthfulness about the processing of pain and the search for connection that gives a solid foundation to the many splintered, whirling parts of “Citizen Rose.” The most fascinating moments allow the viewer to be a fly on the wall as McGowan meets with others who’ve traveled similar paths. Her conversations with Ronan Farrow, who’s written several blockbuster pieces about Weinstein, and with a group of women who talked to reporters about their treatment by men like Louis C.K., John Hockenberry and others, could have gone on even longer.
At one point, McGowan has a gripping one-on-one conversation with Asia Argento, another alleged victim of Weinstein. The word “victim” is one that McGowan sometimes chooses to use; she has a conversation with Argento about whether that appellation, or “survivor,” is more appropriate.
The women don’t come to a neat conclusion, but their conversation — drawing as it does on a shared experience that they don’t have to explain to each other — vibrates with recognition. It’s as if long-lost sisters have met for the first time; that’s how much barely suppressed emotion fills the room. There’s no name for this kind of reunion, but it doesn’t need a word to be powerful.